observations and opinion
A Look at the Canadian Election
The “dropping of the writ” at Rideau Hall yesterday was an anti-climactic start to the Canadian election. Looming for weeks and expected for days, kick off day was a joyless affair. For Canadians of every stripe – and for the many with no stripe at all – August 2nd was just another Sunday in our long, uneasy summer of 2015. No one knows with any confidence what will happen and worse perhaps, many are unsure what they want to see happen.
The polls tell us that two thirds of Canadians are keen to see a change of government, but that they are undecided as to what that government should look like. A year ago the Liberals believed their sunny, good looking leader would body surf across a crowd of voters to power, not Trudeaumania exactly but perhaps Trudeaupalooza. That fantasy has evaporated and now, in the grey and unsettled weeks ahead of October 19th, Justin Trudeau suddenly finds himself campaigning as the Rodney Dangerfield of Canadian politics. I don’t get no respect. His face seems to inspire the same reaction as those Humane Society puppy videos: won’t you take Justin home, before it’s too late?
The NDP seems to lead in the polls – a new development in our politics – but for New Democrats the situation must be bittersweet, delivered to the doorstep of power by the beloved Jack Layton, only to see him die and be replaced by the hard shell Tom Mulcair. Mr. Mulcair seems a competent and serious man, but he teeters in a dangerous place: atop the polls, leading a party that for good reason has not been taken seriously on a national level before, hoping not to screw it all up. If he wins it will be on an orange wave of disgust with the alternatives, not the happy beer foam Jack rode in on.
And then there is Harper. Whether two thirds of voters dislike him or not, the fact is that conditions greatly favour his return to 24 Sussex: the economy is wobbly but not collapsing, creating the nervous condition tending to make people behave cautiously. He is the legitimate and sincere voice of a tough guy brand of international and security policy. The seats held by the Tories have been splintered into more seats, creating a larger pool of districts where the Conservatives are the natural party.
For many, many months the Conservatives focused their fire power on demeaning Justin Trudeau – reinforcing Trudeau’s image as callow, entitled and dumb. This, along with the Liberal Party’s surprising gift for self-immolation, has helped evaporate the wide, shallow pool of support that kept JT’s boat afloat. The net effect of this was to drive anti-Conservative voters to undecided territory or, increasingly, to Mulcair’s NDP.
This in turn has had a remarkable effect on partisan Liberals, which will be more evident as the long campaign spools out: they have started to hate Mulcair almost as much as they hate Harper. The essence of Liberal Party politics is entitlement – their own – which is why they bought what looked like an easy ticket back to power in Mr. Trudeau, which is why they have long despised Mr. Harper and now, why they rail and cavil about Mr. Mulcair. It will not be pretty.
This of course is precisely what Harper wants to see: a fractious opposition oscillating between two difficult options: the fawn-like Liberal leader, a kind of political Bambi flapping its eyelashes in innocent wonder at the hunter’s gun or in the alternative the big angry NDP orange grizzly bear. Meanwhile up in the tree, solemn and silent and spookily wise, sits the Conservative owl. An innocuous looking bird, until it suddenly swoops in and clutches your baby chicks in its claws.
The owl likes his chances. And he should, because the conditions leading up to the October 19th vote seem very much in his favour. It is reasonably foreseeable that the polls will continue to favour Mr. Mulcair for much of the campaign, with the Conservatives lagging slightly behind. If so, we can expect (and will definitely see) Prime Minister Harper unleash his weaponry on the NDP and just as quickly, stop hammering the Liberals. The PM will say simply: “look, it’s me or the socialists.” In that moment any soft Liberal support at all will look at the hopeless prospects of their own team and very likely, hold their noses to vote Conservative. Such a scenario poses a risk of terrible destruction to the Liberals and survival for the Harper Conservative government.
A Canadian general election may look like one event but it is actually 338 separate elections, held in separate places across the country. Each riding has on average 100,000 inhabitants, of whom about two-thirds can vote. Of those who can vote, in recent years around 60-65% turn out. If you’re doing the math, you can see that the mythical average riding will see 50,000 votes cast (in reality it was around 48,000 in 2011). Of course, those who vote are not a representative sample of the adult population: older people vote more often than do younger ones, which means that people 50 and over have a disproportionate weight of influence over results in most ridings.
Those who vote, it seems, have longstanding habits which don’t much change. It seems that each of the three main parties (NDP, Conservatives and Liberals) enjoys the bedrock support of about 20% of the voting population. With 20% in the bank, the parties spend their greatest efforts wooing the people who aren’t loyal to them – that other 40% or so which shifts around. The “Middle Forty” as I call it, is really everything in a Canadian federal election.
Historically that Middle 40% oscillated between the Tories and Grits, with the NDP pretty well stuck at or under the 20 percent level. In 2011, of course, that changed dramatically with the NDP shooting up to 30 percent and the Liberals actually falling slightly below 20. In polling since 2013 the expectation among many was that the Liberals would regain their ground and they did – for a while. But the most recent major poll, the first published since the election was called yesterday, puts the New Democrats at an astounding 39% nationally, way ahead of the Cons and Libs. That will only make Mr. Mulcair and Company even more uneasy, being afraid of losing their so-called lead and never having had to hang on to one before.
National vote totals don’t really mean all that much, of course. As discussed, a general election is a whole lot of local elections, held on the same day. A regional survey is much more useful a predictive tool than a broad national number. We do see trends: the Liberals were until recently leading in the Atlantic provinces and doing better in Quebec. Those numbers have dropped dramatically. Ontario, with the most seats, is also the most volatile – no one can win an election without a decent share of the Ontario vote. It seems like a three way split these days which for the NDP is a very promising development.
More dramatic in this election is the west. Dead territory for Liberals, the three western provinces have been carved up between Conservatives and New Democrats for a long time. There was never a realistic hope that Trudeau the Younger would change that, given his late father’s reviled status west of the Lakehead. The Conservatives viewed the west as a kind of bulwark, particularly Alberta. As we know, however, that all changed one night not long ago when the NDP swept to a big provincial majority victory in the land of oil. That event clearly sent a shockwave through the electorate and painted the national NDP with a gloss of “viability” – key to winning a healthy share of that inconstant, crucial middle 40.
Just as core components of the electorate are reliably Liberal, NDP or Conservative, so too have ridings formed a reasonably predictable set of preferences. Downtown Toronto ridings at present can vote NDP or Liberal, but not for the Harper Conservatives. Suburban Toronto and 905 ridings are considerably warmer to the Tories. Quebec City has an odd affinity for the Tories, just as the Island of Montreal remains (maybe) a redoubt of Liberal support. I am not sure of how many ridings are really “safe” for a particular party but it is fair to say that it is the ridings which are not safe, the ones which shift around, where the action is. In other words, the Middle 40 in a particular subset of the country’s districts will often decide the national outcome.
Our voting system, as you likely know is called “first past the post” which is a photogenic but inaccurate name for a method which gives victory in each riding to the candidate with the most votes. Thus in a three-way race in our mythical average riding where 50,000 votes are cast, the outcome could be 16,667 to 16,666 to 16,666. Were the same party to win every riding by that margin, we would have a one party state elected by about 17% of the total population, on a margin of 338 votes out of 16 million ballots cast. Fluky, ain’t it?
Of course, that doesn’t happen. What does happen, usually, is that a party with 35-45% of the vote takes a plurality or majority of the seats. But as we have discussed, it is a relatively small subset of the electorate – the majority of the Middle 40 – which will decide the thing in the swing ridings and it is those ridings in turn, which will decide the thing in the House of Commons.
There is a record number of seats this year without an incumbent – over a hundred – and 30 new ridings carved for the most part out of old Conservative ones. The loyal 20% voting blocks are locked in place and the uneasy, worried Middle 40 live in large numbers in areas where the economy is starting to flake at the edges (or worse, in oil country). The opposition dreams that worried voters will blame Harper for their troubles but nobody – nobody who isn’t a loony partisan – thinks Stephen Harper is to blame for the price of oil falling. The Liberals, our “Natural Governing Party” as one wag dubbed them long ago, have not earned back the confidence of the electorate which spurned them after 2006. The NDP is red hot in the polls right now but, with a little scrutiny of its union-heavy membership and socialist history, will begin to worry people. Nobody much likes Mr. Harper but up against the strangely unknown of the NDP and the fatally underwhelming knowns of the Liberals, he has a titanic advantage as a stable, predictable presence.
So no matter what opinion polls say in early August, what voters will say in the second half of October is not writ in stone and in fact, the smart money has to remain on Prime Minister Harper managing to hang on – if not to his majority, then to a healthy minority, looking for third party support from the Liberals (who will gladly take what they can get as influence while looking for a new leader in 2016). That’s not a prediction, it’s a projection of where we are now.
The trouble with predicting an election 11 weeks away is who the hell knows what can happen? Just about anything in the space of a few seconds can alter the rhythm of the thing irrevocably: a terrorist attack, preferably averted (God the Tories really must want something scary to pop up), a sudden and unexpected burst of brilliance from Mr. Trudeau, or Mr. Mulcair growling angrily at some lady on a sidewalk. Then boom!!!! it’s a whole new ball game. We shall see what surprises the universe has in store for us. In the meantime, the strange kabuki dance of the owl, the grizzly and the fawn continues, aimed squarely at the Middle 40.